Jamie Herzlich Newsday columnist Jamie Herzlich

Herzlich writes the Small Business column in Newsday.

Many business owners cringe when they get an online review of fewer than five stars, but it turns out that might actually be a stamp of approval in the eyes of many consumers.

Shoppers are most likely to buy a product ranked between 4.2 and 4.5 stars, with their likelihood of purchasing falling as the rating gets closer to 5.0, according to researchers at Northwestern University.

It appears that perfect five-star reviews don’t always sit right with consumers, who may perceive them as lacking credibility.

“They’re not buying all the perfect reviews,” said Tom Collinger, executive director of Northwestern’s IMC Spiegel Digital & Database Research Center in Evanston, Illinois. “They appear to be valuing authenticity over the appearance of perfection.”

The researchers worked with ratings data in the consumer packaged goods category supplied by Chicago-based PowerReviews, a ratings and reviews technology company. Their analysis found that the impact of star ratings varied across product segments as well as between expensive and inexpensive items.

For example, they found that star ratings matter more in the case of a product like baby food that might be inexpensive but is a “high-involvement” item because of parents’ overwhelming concern to feed their baby safe, healthy food. The same goes for expensive items in “high consideration” categories where safety and quality are important.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

In product categories with higher risk, the correlation between higher star ratings and purchase decisions goes up, said Collinger.

But beyond that, five-star ratings aren’t necessarily all that.

“Consumers are smart, and they are able to identify and determine when something is overly positive,” said Matt Parsons, chief customer officer at PowerReviews.

That doesn’t mean business owners shouldn’t strive to get five stars.

“Continue to shoot for perfection and be happy you don’t reach it,” said Collinger.

But that’s not always easy to do.

“As a CEO, you want five stars,” said Steve Asman, president of GustBuster Ltd., a Farmingdale-based umbrella company. “You want to strive for excellence no matter what you do.”

But he understands five stars are very difficult to get, noting “there are people you can’t make happy no matter what. “

Despite that, “I’m still striving for five,” said Asman, whose umbrellas overall get high ratings including 4.4 out of 5 stars on the company’s Facebook page. “Nobody can be perfect, but you have to strive to be better.”

Asman, who said his company sells more than 300,000 umbrellas annually, engages with his audience online and will reach out to customers who leave positive comments as well as negative ones.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

But he doesn’t outright ask for reviews.

“I always felt if you had a good product people will talk about it,” he said.

Some sites like Yelp actually discourage business owners from asking customers to write reviews, with the idea that they may only approach happy customers.

Scott Darrohn, chief operating officer at fishbat, a Bohemia digital marketing firm, said he feels there’s no harm in asking for reviews.

But rather than asking for a positive review, you should ask for an honest review, he noted.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

You can ask something like, “How do you feel our product or service has been up to this point?” and if they say good, you can request that they leave an honest review on a review site, he said.

Pay attention to what people are saying about you, and if it’s negative, ask to discuss the issue further offline and figure out how to fix it, advised Darrohn. You may even seek legal counsel if it’s defamatory, he said. Just don’t ignore it, because a poor online reputation can be detrimental.

“Negative reviews can have a negative impact on the company’s bottom line,” said Darrohn, who said demand for fishbat’s online reputation-management service has doubled in the past year.

Generally speaking, if you have a product below three stars, customers think seriously about removing that product from their selection, said Parsons of PowerReviews.

So how can you generate honest reviews?

Consider that people generally leave reviews close to the time of their experience, said Kevin Lee, executive chairman of Didit, a Mineola digital marketing firm. So let them know at the moment of purchase that you encourage reviews, perhaps on the receipt or check.

You might even remind them in a company e-newsletter to leave a review, he added.

If your email list includes your top loyal customers, they’re more likely to give a balanced review because they’ve frequented your establishment more than once and have some perspective, said Lee.

“We advise our customers to encourage customer feedback in a post-transactional follow-up,” said Brian Sparker, head of content marketing at Chicago-based ReviewTrackers, an online review management and reputation monitoring platform.

Instead of soliciting a review, ask for general feedback on how the customer enjoyed his or her experience, he said. That feedback sometimes translates into more positive reviews that the customer might be willing to share on social media.

Just don’t offer incentives to give positive reviews, he noted.

“We always say a perfect review is not five stars, it’s more about whether it’s transparent and truthful,” says Sparker.